One golden rule of opposition in a democratic society is: don’t criticise your own side when your country is at war. That’s not because your criticisms may be unjustified, but because, at a time of war-fever, they are liable to bring on to your head the charge of ‘treachery’. Here, Jeremy Corbyn could, perhaps, learn from history; and from one historical event in particular.
The South African War of 1899-1902, of Britain against the ‘Boer’ or Dutch-origin farmer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State in South Africa, was undoubtedly an unjust war, provoked by the British on a flimsy pretext, probably to get their hands on the Transvaal’s gold and diamonds (though it’s more complicated than that), and after they had deliberately scotched any chances of a peaceful solution to their quarrel. As a result many people in Britain opposed the war – how many it’s hard to say; the din created by the ‘jingos’ made it difficult to hear their small, soft voices – and said so. JA Hobson, the originator of the ‘capitalist theory of imperialism’, was one. He and most other opponents of the war were not defenders of the Boers, who, to be honest, were a reactionary set of religious-fundamentalist racists who had only very recently and reluctantly given up black slavery; but took the stand they did because they believed the war had been forced on the Boers under a false pretext.
So far, not very similar to our present situation vis-à-vis Islamicist terrorism. But there is one parallel. The name given to these people who opposed the Boer war, and which has stuck to them – books have been written about them, including my own Critics of Empire, 1968 – was ‘the pro-Boers’. It was a propaganda device, designed to associate the critics with the military enemies of the Queen, and so to smear them as ‘unpatriotic’. The obloquy that followed was intense. They were stoned and beaten up. The newly-minted Daily Mail started up a campaign against them, deliberately falsifying the facts of the war, incidentally, along the way. A ‘khaki election’ was held, prematurely, to exploit the jingoism, which the government won. Many so-called ‘pro-Boers’ ducked down behind the ramparts until the storm had blown over – as it did. (Two prominent pro-Boers even became Prime Ministers later on.) But it was nasty while it lasted.
The similarities with our ‘war against terror’ are not exact, but are clear to see. Our present ‘khaki election’ is one. But the main one is the way in which Jeremy Corbyn is being portrayed, in the Mail and other papers, and quite explicitly, as being pro-terrorist – those IRA ‘links’ – in just the same fashion as the opponents of that earlier conflict were painted as pro-Boer, in order to make him out to be a traitor.
It was in the face of this that Corbyn decided to publicly vent, in a speech this morning, the case that Islamicist terrorism is partly the unintended result of past British and American military intervention in the Middle East. This is an interpretation which is well-known and accepted in American intelligence circles, where it’s known as ‘blowback’; and which has been applied specifically to current terrorist atrocities in Europe and America by no less than a former Director of MI5 (Eliza Manningham-Buller). It’s a reasonable argument, just as the pro-Boers’ case against the South African War was; and should undoubtedly be regarded as one of the mix of factors that brought this terrorist onslaught upon us. It will be corroborated by future historians, who will by that time be thankfully immune from the Mail; and would be seen as perfectly fair in calmer times.
The problem, however, is that these aren’t calmer times. The blood of innocent children still stains the streets and squares of Manchester. In this context Corbyn’s legitimate desire to understand and explain Islamicist terrorism, with a view to preventing it in the future, is too easily interpreted as excusing or defending it, by politicians and newspapers that want to get at him anyway, and see this as having resonance among voters in our ‘khaki election’. Already – before he had actually delivered his speech, but obviously on the basis of hints passed to the press – it was being said that he was effectively blaming the victims for their own deaths; which of course is outrageous, but could be something that will resonate.
Personally I would have advised, on the basis of my scholarly ‘Boer War’ experience, and my innate caution, that he didn’t pursue this line just yet. There are other ways of implicitly criticising the government; for example, by homing in on Theresa May’s slashing of police numbers by 20,000 when she was Home Secretary, which an ex-Manchester police chief at the time warned quite explicitly would undermine their counter-terrorism capabilities. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irm2VZMDEvo. It’s quite uncannily prescient.) Corbyn had already pledged a Labour Government to reverse this in his party’s Manifesto (p.76), so he can’t be accused of opportunism. He would get away with this. It would make him look if anything more ‘strong and stable’ than the prime minister. It would meet the Conservatives on their own chosen ground. But raking up his old pacifism and anti-Americanism by pursuing the ‘blowback’ idea at this moment would, I thought, have the opposite effect. It would fit nicely into the narrative that had been carefully constructed for him already by the Right-wing press. ‘No; back off’, I was thinking last night. With the result that I watched his actual speech, broadcast an hour or so ago on television, with some trepidation.
I’m still a little trepidatious(?). The speech, I thought, was excellent: serious, dignified, well-argued, rightly condemnatory of the terrorists, justly complimentary towards the people of Manchester and their local emergency services, emphasising their togetherness and solidarity as a socialist is particularly entitled to do, dismissing Islamophobia and other sources of division, and yes, picking up the point about police ‘cuts’ (‘austerity should stop at the hospital entrance and the door of the police station’), but without any more overt reference to Home Secretary May. So he couldn’t be accused of ‘playing politics’. The point about British foreign policy was made, but in a nuanced way, which obviously didn’t lift any of the blame for Monday’s atrocity from the shoulders of the terrorists. It should convince an awful lot of voters that their country would be safe in his hands. But that’s only if they are allowed to see it or read it, without its being reduced, edited and then glossed by their newspapers or TV commentators. There’s the rub.
If the speech does succeed in getting through and around these obstacles, and boosts or at least doesn’t undermine Corbyn’s new image as a defender of the people, my caution and trepidation will have been unnecessary. I’ll have been proved wrong. (I won’t mind that.) May’s lead over Corbyn in the last polls before the Manchester event had already been slashed from about 20 points to five. That’s what had put the spring in my step as I came away from his rally on Monday; only to be reduced to the deepest despondency as I caught the news from Manchester. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/05/23/manchester-and-may/.) We’ll see shortly how the press treats him after today’s speech, and what effect that has on the polls. If he succeeds in maintaining his popular momentum, or even increasing it, on the back of this brave gamble, it will be a triumph for the rational pro-Boer spirit that has always been there in the Labour movement. It could also – if he wins the election- trigger a remarkable and much-needed revolution in our political affairs. He’d be a people’s hero, against all the odds. – But I mustn’t allow myself to hope.